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As a born and raised New Yorker whose grandfather went through Ellis Island, it was a truly special experience to revisit Ellis Island again recently. Maybe it’s something about being young, but visiting Ellis Island this time definitely was far more special. I hope that these tips for visiting Ellis Island for the first time help you enjoy this historic museum that is certainly worth visiting!
What is Ellis Island? Is it worth visiting?!
In case you are not aware of Ellis Island, Ellis Island is an island off New York and New Jersey which served as the biggest immigration port in the United States. More than 12,000,000 immigrants, including my own grandfather, passed through these halls. This monument, now museum, is not just an attestment to the American dream, but also a sad reminder of the injustices committed in the United States in the name of nationalism.
It’s harder to me to say whether it is interesting to visit Ellis Island as a foreigner, but I certainly believe that it should be a rite of passage for anyone from the United States who is not a Native American. Here, you’ll learn about the often brutal inspections and treatment of those whose names were supposedly too difficult for Americans to pronounce. You’ll also learn about the stories of families who passed through these halls. Simply, I believe that it’s worth spending at least two hours here if you’re also visiting the Statue of Liberty.
Ellis Island is free to visit together with the Statue of Liberty*
If you are planning on visiting the Statue of Liberty, I recommend being careful with what tickets you purchase and when for the Statue of Liberty itself. That said, Ellis Island is free to visit together with the Statue of Liberty grounds, which is a steal. It’s easy to spend a whole day exploring both sites.
You can only reach Ellis Island by boat. The only official contractor for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island cruise tickets is StatueCruises. Please buy your tickets through the official website. If you do this, you can also enter the priority line for screening. I recommend checking my other post about the Statue of Liberty for more information about the ferry and what you cannot bring onto the ferry. Avoid scammers and people who offer you tickets on the street!
If you’re interested in doing something a bit difficult and if you love urban exploring, I recommend paying for the extra 90-minute hard hard visit to the Ellis Island Hospital Complex to learn more about the behind-the-scenes bits that most visitors to Ellis Island don’t see.
As a note, Ellis Island is handicap-friendly, so everyone can enjoy Ellis Island without any issues! Please ask a parks ranger for assistance, however, you’ll find ramps to enter the building. (The Statue of Liberty itself is not fully handicap accessible.)
Be aware of the last ferry hours back to New Jersey or New York
You do not want to miss the last ferry back to New York or New Jersey! You can check the ferry schedule in person or on the Statue Cruises website as the hours change depending on the season. The last ferry from Ellis Island generally departs at 3:30pm (2019; NPS website).
Be sure to get on one of the earliest ferries to give yourself enough time to see the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island? This is the best way to avoid the crowds at both attractions. You need to account for the ferry schedule along with the time spent on the ferry. I recommend ensuring that you leave early enough for Ellis Island to have 1-2 hours exploring the museum!
Don’t miss the Great Hall and the Baggage Room
One of the highlights for me had to be the Great Hall, which was the registry room. This beautiful room which seems calm and serene now was where new immigrants would pass through as they were registered by immigration agents. People would wait here for days as well as be forced to go through examinations. At this point, people could be rejected if they were unlucky. The room has been fully restored to its earlier appearance.
I also recommend visiting the Baggage Room, which is where thousands of pieces of luggage would be placed as people went through processing. Even if you’re not very knowledgable about American immigration, there is lots of interesting information in here!
Be sure to stop to look out the window
Although you can certainly enjoy a great view of the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island itself or from the ferry, there’s certainly something to be said about only being able to see it from a window on Ellis Island. For many immigrants unlucky enough to get sick along the way, this was the only part of the United States they would have seen prior to being sent to the hospital and possibly deported.
If you have family who would have passed through Ellis Island, it’s worth paying the fee to research their systems.
Hidden within Ellis Island, you’ll find a number of monitors where you can look up your family history by paying $8 (2019 prices) per hour to dig through the records. If you know that a relative passed through Ellis Island, I strongly recommend making a list of relative names (from original documents ideally!), birthplace, approximate age at the time, and arrival in the US. I say that because you might find a lot of records and if you have limited time, you can look through so many records. This is also possible online if you cannot go in person.
Cell phone service in this area was quite poor, so come prepared with writing down necessary information or pulling it up on your phone before you arrive! I tried to get in touch with family members to ask questions, however, the poor service stopped me and my friend from making much progress.
How to avoid the crowds on Ellis Island
Summer is the most popular time of the year to visit Liberty Island and Ellis Island, so avoid weekends if possible. If you cannot avoid visiting on a weekend, I recommend taking the first ferry available and purchasing a ticket in advance. Still, the security that you must go through can take a while, so plan smartly with your ferry time. Many people barely visit Ellis Island, so it tends to be less crowded than Liberty Island. Visit in winter for minimal crowds!
Take the free tour by a park ranger
Curious about finding out more beyond the exhibitions? There are regular and free tours held by certified park rangers that are free to join! Tours are held each half-hour and begin near the front of the building at the information booth, so check the schedule or contact NPS for more information!
Leave your big bags at your hotel!
In order to visit Ellis Island (and the Statue of Liberty), you will need to meet the requirements. All travelers will need to go through an airport-style security booth prior to getting on the ferry. Suitcases and a number of kinds of large bags aren’t allowed. I recommend bringing a daypack or a small purse. Budget-friendly travelers can bring their own food to enjoy on the grounds, however, those climbing the Statue of Liberty should read the terms carefully.